Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Theodore O'Hara, born February 11, 1820

Theodore O'Hara
Theodore O'Hara was born to educator Kane O'Hara and his wife in Danville, Kentucky on February 11, 1820. Afterwards, the family moved to Frankfort, Kentucky.

O'Hara was 41 years old when the Civil War began.

Theodore O'Hara
John Breckinridge
O'Hara studied law with future United States Vice President and Confederate Secretary of War  John C. Breckinridge, and he
was admitted to the bar in 1842. He decided to forgo law and went to journalism in 1845, just before being appointed for a position in the United States Treasury
 Department in 1845.

As the Mexican-American War was beginning, O'Hara signed up for the U.S. Army on June 26, 1846. He served under General  Gideon J. Pillow as they advanced upon Mexico City

O’Hara wrote the poem, “Bivouac of the Dead” as a remembrance of the many casualties suffered by the Second Kentucky Regiment of Foot Volunteers who fought at the Battle of Buena Vista.  The verse was produced for the dedication ceremony for a monument erected to the men. The battle of February 22-23, 1847, saw 4,759 Americans under the command of General Zachary Taylor repulse an estimated force of 18,000 Mexicans led by President Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna. More Americans fell at Buena Vista—267 killed and 456 wounded—than any other battle in the war.

O'Hara  was honorably discharged on October 15, 1848.  After the war ended in 1848, O'Hara returned to Washington, D.C. to continue his law practices until 1851.

He was a firm believer in American expansion, in the form of filibustering. He joined others from Kentucky in an expedition to Cuba in 1850, after spending much of 1849 recruiting Kentuckians to the filibuster cause. Under the command of General Narciso
Lopez,  O'Hara commanded a regiment, with the rank of colonel, in the hopes of removing Spanish rule from Cuba. In the battle of Cardenas on May 18, 1850, he suffered a severe injury. After Lopez failed and died in his Cuba position in 1851, O'Hara returned to Kentucky, after fellow Kentuckians serving in Cuba took him with them as they escaped, returning to the United States.
O'Hara returned to journalism, first working for the Frankfort Yeoman of Frankfort, Kentucky, and then helping to found the original Louisville Times of Louisville, Kentucky in 1852.  O'Hara left the Louisville Times in 1853 to join General John A. Quitman's filibuster expedition to Cuba. 

After Quitman's efforts failed, O'Hara attained a commission in the United States Army, was appointed captain of the Second Cavalry on March 3, 1855, and returned to Louisville as a recruiter for the Army. He was later reassigned to Indian fighting in TexasOn December 1, 1856, he was forced to resign by Robert E. Lee (then Lt. Colonel), as Lee brought up charges of drunkenness against O'Hara, and threatened him with court martial.

While O’Hara was editor of the Mobile Register in Alabama in 1858, “Bivouac” was published in that newspaper in what is considered the original form; two years later it appeared in the Louisville Courier with the explanatory introduction: “Lines written at the tomb of the Kentuckians who fell at Buena Vista, buried in the cemetery at Frankfort.” O’Hara apparently changed words throughout the verse quite frequently, and different versions of it appeared at different times.

Braxton Bragg
At the beginning of the Civil War in 1861, Theodore O'Hara joined the Confederate army and became colonel of the Twelfth Alabama Regiment. He would serve with General Albert Sidney Johnston and with General John C. Breckinridge, his fellow law student. He distinguished himself in the Battle of Shiloh and the Battle of Stone's River, but conflicts with General Braxton Bragg and with President of the Confederate States,  Jefferson Davis, hampered his military career and made his efforts to attain a regimental command futile.
Described as a handsome bachelor, O’Hara spent his life traveling from place to place and never owned a home. This itinerant lifestyle of journalist and soldier may have masked frequent bouts with depression and an addiction to alcohol, according to some accounts.

After the war, O'Hara went to Columbus, Georgia to work in the cotton business, but eventually lost his business to a fire. He later lived on a plantation in Alabama, where he died. He was returned to Columbus for burial. 
On September 15, 1874, his remains, along with those of other Mexican War officers, were buried in the state cemetery in Frankfort, Kentucky.
Grave of Theodore O'Hara

O'Hara's friend Sergeant Henry T. Stanton read "The Bivouac of the Dead" at the reinternment. 
The muffled drum's sad roll has beat 
The soldier's last tattoo; 
No more on Life's parade shall meet 
That brave and fallen few. 
On fame's eternal camping ground 
Their silent tents to spread, 
And glory guards, with solemn round 
The bivouac of the dead.

Because he served for the Confederacy, O'Hara often goes uncredited when the quatrain is used in a non-Confederate cemetery setting.  Although stanzas from Theodore O’Hara’s poem, “Bivouac of the Dead,” are inscribed on iron tablets found throughout this country’s national cemeteries, there is little public recognition of this poet-soldier.  Quartermaster General Montgomery C. Meigs directed that lines from “Bivouac” grace the entrance to Arlington National Cemetery.

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